In The Swing

From the core to the wrists, here’s a look at the strength and conditioning program used by the University of Tennessee’s men’s tennis program.

By Shawn McGhee & Johnny Long

Shawn McGhee is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach and Johnny Long, CSCC, USWF, is Assistant Athletics Director for Physical Development and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Tennessee.

Training & Conditioning, 12.7, October 2002,

Tennis is an explosive sport that can be described as a series of short, quick bursts of action. At the University of Tennessee, our strength-training program for men’s tennis takes this definition to heart by striving to build strength without sacrificing speed.

Specifically, we design our program with the following goals: boosting the overall strength of our athletes, preventing injuries, and increasing their speed, flexibility, and overall conditioning. Another key is maintaining their strength levels throughout the season.

Most tennis players I meet have never done any serious weight training previous to their college careers. Therefore, proper coaching and close monitoring is vital to the success of this athlete.

Basic Goals
Increasing total strength is the first goal of our program. In most weightrooms across the country, the general theme is bigger, stronger, and faster. For tennis, we go for stronger and faster, not bigger, because we are training for explosive bursts of action.

Our major strength exercises are squats and bench presses. Squats help to strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, and hips, which are used in all aspects of tennis. The bench press builds shoulder and arm strength, which helps with racquet control and power. We’ve also found that bench presses can be a confidence booster. If an athlete sees a gain in his bench press, his confidence grows and it gives him a positive attitude toward all aspects of strength training.

For injury prevention, we focus on the rotator cuff, wrist, and elbow. These areas are prone to injury in the athlete’s racquet arm due to the specific stresses and strains of the game. We use rubber tubing for our rotator cuff exercises, and have the athletes do internal and external rotations from 0 to 90 degrees. Also, the athletes do physio-ball pushups for stabilization. For the wrist and elbow, they do wrist flexions, wrist extensions, wrist/elbow supinations, and wrist/elbow pronations, usually with a light dumbbell or broom stick.

Increasing speed is another key goal. Given the explosiveness of the sport, the speed of the player and the speed of the racquet are crucial. To maximize an athlete’s speed, we emphasize the speed of the moving weight. We train the muscle groups to be fast in the weightroom so that the same groups will be fast on the court. If we see that an athlete is moving the weight slowly in an Olympic lift or in a twisting lift, then we will not hesitate to lighten the load.

Flexibility is another key area of emphasis. Over the years, we have found that a lot of tennis players do not know the importance of stretching. We teach our athletes that proper stretching can reduce the chance of injuries to the hamstrings, groin, and other areas stressed on the court. We make it a point to have our athletes stretch before and after workouts and give them stretching routines to do at home. Some of these exercises include the sitting V-stretch, sitting groin stretch, quadriceps stretch, and lower back stretch.

Conditioning for endurance in short bursts and multi-directional movements is another goal. We consider conditioning to be an integral part of our tennis strength-training goals because strength will be useless on the court if the athlete runs out of steam after one or two sets.

Conditioning, like weight training, is a progressive process. We usually begin by doing some long-distance running in diagonals or on some type of circuit. After three weeks, we progress to working the endurance in short bursts, such as a 300-yard gasser in 25-yard increments. Once we have done these short bursts for four weeks, we begin to get creative. For example, we’ll often keep the short bursts, but add some multi-directional work into the conditioning regime. We also add in some resistance work such as hills, sand pits, or sidewinders. This variation ensures that all muscle groups are addressed, plus it keeps the workouts interesting for coaches and athletes alike.

Maintaining strength levels is an ongoing in-season goal. We find that most athletes will get a little weaker as the season progresses due to the lack of workout time and the wear put on their bodies during matches. Therefore, during the competitive season, we design a light in-season program with one or two workouts per week.

For instance, a typical in-season workout includes light clean pulls, hammer twists, bear squats, and shoulder work on one day. On the second weekly workout day, we would include some alternating dumbbell bench presses and exercises for the back, biceps, and triceps. If we only have one day in a week, we will probably have them do bear squats, clean pulls, and a circuit on machines.

Core Power
To achieve the above goals, we focus on key muscle groups that are stressed in our sport. This includes the core, legs, hips, and shoulders.

A tennis athlete’s core is vital to success. Building a strong core not only helps with overall stabilization, but with the athlete’s power when it comes to hitting a ball and changing directions. Therefore, the focus is on all areas of the abdominal region.

During the first three weeks of our preseason program, we limit core exercises to bodyweight only with a primary focus on higher repetitions and good form. After the third week, we begin weighted core exercises, which are performed with the athlete holding either a weight plate or a medicine ball. Exercises such as crunches, crossovers, and toe touches can be performed with external weight.

Some other key core exercises are hammer-jammer rotations and hammer twists. Both of these exercises are done with machines that mimic the athlete’s twisting motion on the tennis court. The key here is not so much the amount of weight, but moving the weight as quickly as possible. In other words, we focus on speed and form, and not how much weight an athlete can handle.

Weights are added progressively to core exercises to avoid excessive stress, and the movements continue to be rapid throughout the weight range. When the strength coach feels the athlete can maintain good speed with a certain weight without sacrificing form, then more weight is added. Throughout this process, we urge the athletes to move through each repetition as fast as they can, with the same—or greater—force than they swing a tennis racquet.

The lower back is a key core area that is stressed during the game of tennis. To strengthen this area, we utilize two or more sets of supermans or opposite arm-opposite leg routines. For this routine, we have the athlete lay flat on his stomach with arms extended over the head, legs straight out, and head down. Then, the athlete lifts both arms and legs off the ground. The “superman” exercise flexes and strengthens the lower back. A variation of this exercise has the athlete lifting his left arm and right leg simultaneously and then the right arm and left leg. We also have our athletes do three or four sets of low-back exercises, such as hypers or reverse hypers.

Another core area that we focus on is the hips. Strong hips help a tennis player’s quickness, serve, and volleys. To train the hips, we do at least two sets of Olympic lifts, clean pulls from boxes, and snatch high pulls. We do clean pulls from boxes to save the athletes’ backs from excessive strain. There is no need to pull from the floor because a tennis player is standing for the duration of the match. We also do not have our tennis athletes catch a snatch because of the injury risk to the wrists, elbows, and lower back.

Besides these Olympic lifts, we have our athletes do a multi-hip machine that works hip flexion, adduction, and abduction. We have found that this helps our athletes improve their multi-directional movements.

Legs & Shoulders
The next thing we focus on is leg strength. When we train our tennis players, we have to remember that tennis is an endurance sport, and the legs take most of the beating. Here at UT, we believe that squats are the very best thing for a tennis athlete’s legs.

Some tennis coaches hesitate to have their athletes do squats because of the injury risk. However, if properly coached and taken seriously, they can be safe and the rewards are quite significant. Squats can help a tennis player a great deal with speed, low-volley strength, and serving strength.

Shoulders are important for tennis because they provide the power and stabilization for many racquet movements. During the first half of the program—which is six to seven
weeks—we focus on developing shoulder strength. Our main shoulder strengthening exercises are overhead dumbbell presses, upright rows, and a dumbbell shoulder combination that includes front, side, and reverse raises.

After completing six to seven weeks of shoulder training, we turn to shoulder stabilization exercises, which help reduce the risk of injury to the rotator cuff and other components of the shoulder area. At this time, we change our shoulder presses to alternating dumbbell shoulder presses where the athletes hold the weight in the air with one arm while they do a repetition with the other arm. This exercise helps to strengthen not only the deltoid, but also other small yet important muscles deep inside the shoulder.

Another exercise we do for shoulder stabilization is the physioball pushup. This type of pushup is great for building stability deep inside the shoulder and in the rotator cuff. However, we do caution the athlete that it will be hard to do controlled pushups on the first several attempts because these smaller muscles are usually underdeveloped.

Sidebar: Sample Plan
The following is a sample plan for our off-season weight program, which is designed to allow the athlete to recover from the rigors of the past competitive season and slowly build strength back for the next season. In addition to the exercises listed here, we have athletes do partner stretches and run two laps around the indoor field as a warmup.

Snatch high pull, 4x4
Clean pull, 4x3
Multihip, 3x10
Hammer twist, 2x8
Jammer twist, 2x8
Bench press, 4x8
Dumbbell alternating incline bench, 4x8
Triceps, 3x10
Wrist/elbow, 3x10

Squats, 4x8
Leg press, 4x8
Leg extension, 3x10
Romanian Dead Lift, 3x8
Calf raise, 3x10
Dumbbell shoulder press, 3x8
Shoulder combo, 2x10
Rotator cuff, 2x10
Back/biceps, 3x10

Clean high pulls, 4x4
Clean pulls, 4x3
Multihip, 3x10
Hammer twists, 2x8
Jammer twists, 2x8
Physio dumbbell bench presses, 4x10
Physio pushups, 3x10
Triceps, 3x10
Wrist/elbow, 3x10

Speed squats, 4x8
Dumbbell squat jumps, 3x6
Step-ups, 3x8
Mule kicks, 3x10
Physio dumbbell presses, 4x10
Shoulder complex, 2x10
Hughston series, 2x10
Back/biceps, 3x10